The Natural Farming of Orchards

Natural Orchards

 

 

Yet, on the other hand, there always exists the possibility that an unusual fruit will

arise from the seed. Indeed, why not multiply the joys of life by creating a natural

orchard full of variety and surprises? (Fukuoka; NWF, p. 191)

 

How do we grow fruit and nut trees without irrigation, without fertilisers, without spraying and without pruning? We grow these trees by first accepting that we don’t grow trees, nature does. Because a tree is a tree, because of just what it is, it can grow almost anywhere in our temperate climate without any help from us. But first we must let it be just what it is and this begins even before we plant a tree, when the tree is not a tree but a seed.

 

Rule of Thumb: NF begins and ends with seeds…and then begins again…

 

Everything begins to go wrong when we think and act as if a plant can grow only because of us. But when a seed, when hundreds of seeds are planted all the infinite factors which belong to a place and a moment, choose which seeds to grow and what form the tree should take. When we look at all the land that is considered unprofitable for modern farming; hillsides, old fields scoured by erosion, salinisation, or toxic build up, we discover the great opportunity for the NF of fruit and nut trees, for natural orchards.

Every single tree that germinates and grows on this land is a profit for the farmer but for the soil and the climate too. For, if we are not careful, the desertification which has long been destroying North Africa and has since entered into southern Spain, Italy and Greece, will extend further around the Mediterranean Basin and then work inland from there. For where the land is bare cultivated every year, there is created the conditions for the desert to arise, because what we have not yet seen, what we must now see, is that rain does not fall from the skies but grows up from the ground.

 

Rule of Thumb: Bare-soil agriculture does not cultivate food but deserts

 

Trees; fruit and nut trees, nitrogen fixing trees, fodder trees, hedges, windbreaks, all begin to cover the soil and eventually bring back the rains. Sowing tree seeds, seeds we collect ourselves growing in our areas, seeds from the fruit we eat, sowing what has cost nothing and is in itself almost nothing, from this everything grows. By understanding this almost insignificant act, even the most difficult land will begin to produce and produce for many decades, sometimes for hundreds of years.

 

Rule of Thumb: Agriculture is expensive, NF is priceless

 

But, of course, if it were so easy why would we not have grown natural orchards before? Because for us, for modern, technological mankind, the simple is not easy, we are always looking for ways to improve on this, to develop that. We have not grown natural orchards before for the very simple reason that we do not yet have the first idea of how to let nature do-nothing.

Trees offer the perfect vehicle with which we can relinquish our desire for control and hand back the power to source of power itself. In the fruit and nut trees of a natural orchard, inheres the full-powered forces of what is.

 

Brown, structured height of green,

And caressor of blue, so…

They grow to stand,

In standing leaf, in leaf life.

What is this feeling in shade,

Full forces, flow.

Trees let be, just as I would, world let me!

 

 

Heterozygous Apples!

 

Easy! Except…except for natural flux, which within the naturing of nature scientific enquiry has come to call zygosity! Diversity, variation, the constant flow of what is means that stable genetic material would soon fail and fruit and nut trees, just as humans, just as all other plants and animals that sexually reproduce, create changes from generation to generation to move with this flux. In other words not all, and indeed most fruit and nut trees, do not come ‘true’ to the parent tree.

In sexual reproduction a plant is the product of two haploid zygotes, each bearing at least half of the DNA of the parent plant. If the two zygotes bear similar chromosomes the resulting plant will be homozygous and likely reproduce the same fruits or nuts as the parent trees. However, if they are dissimilar, as is common, the plant will be heterozygous and will produce fruits or nuts different from the parent trees. The situation is complicated further by the possibility of polyploidy; normally, plants are the diploid product of two haploid zygotes, however, it is not uncommon in plants for this splitting to be incomplete, but they can still engage in sexual reproduction and the resulting zygote can be polyploid. Such terms as triploid and tetraploid describe how many extra copies of DNA the new plants have.

 

Rule of Thumb: Sexual reproduction is nature’s way of moving with flux

 

Therefore different fruit and nut tree species, when grown from seed, exhibit genetic variability. Humans have long attempted to breed out this variability to ensure the continuation of a particularly good fruit or heavy bearing cultivar and such genetic stability has been achieved in such fruit and nut species as almonds, peaches, some plums and apricots. In these species the resulting tree will bear fruit very similar to the parent trees, ie come ‘true’.

The following table gives an idea of the differences between seeded (NF) and unseeded (conventional) orchards;

 

Sexual Reproduction                                            Vegetative Reproduction

Genetic Variation                                                        Genetic Stability

Strong Vigour                                                               Reduced Vigour

Late Fruiting                                                                Early Fruiting

Strong Rooting                                                            Weak Rooting

Self-Feeding                                                                 Fertilising

Healthy                                                                         Spraying

Rain Water                                                                   Irrigation

No Pruning                                                                   Pruning

Long Lived                                                                   Short Lived

Adapted                                                                       Non-Adapted

 

An apple orchard that has been grown from seed will produce fruit that are all unlike their parents. From one perspective this is entirely unfortunate, from another it is joyous; for while we have lost all control over the type of fruit born by each tree, each fruit produced will have never been seen or tasted before. In the majority of cases, these new apples will be smaller, more sour, some trees may only produce a tiny crop, some may be particularly prone to diseases. Yet, there is also a certain magic to this new generation, for amongst all those we would be quick to call failures, there will also be those that equal or perhaps surpass any apple we have ever tasted before, some trees might bear an extraordinary quantity year in and year out without showing any signs of biennial bearing, others might produce only a few apples but these are so ‘good’ that this new variety will be sought after and cuttings of this tree might be sold to start son and daughter orchards. Such new varieties used to be called ‘sports’ and this name suggests the play involved in all NF. There are always surprises, there are certainly those we might feel disappointed in, but there will always be those which give rise to awe within our hearts. Forever old and yet forever new, NF is the openness of human beings to the profligate wonder of nature naturing.

But who has the time in these days of financial need to let nature play and produce apples that no one will want to eat, let alone buy? Right now the shops are filled with the most beautiful, shiny, delicious looking apples, why would we want to go to the trouble of starting an orchard? Perhaps, because we have bitten in to these apples and tasted the insipid flavours or extreme sourness! Grown because of the way they would look on the shelves, grown for their long shelf life, picked unripe to be transported from one country to another, one continent to another, one hemisphere to another; we know that apples can be different to these vacuous beauties. Every apple bought in a shop is an original combination of zygotes that produced a heterozygous tree, that did, indeed, not produce fruit like its parents, but better!

 

Rule of Thumb: The sheer joy of nature playing ‘sport’ is NF

 

A natural orchard does not need to be filled with sour or small fruit which we eat because we are zealots. There are alternatives:

 

  1. It is possible to take a bud off one of these NF apple trees when still young, many years before it might bear its own fruit and, by grafting it onto a mature apple tree, get this bud to flower and set fruit.
  2. Apple seeds also produce different types of trees that can be divided into 4 main groups; the first to flower after 3 to 4 years are crab apples; then come good cropping diploid varieties; those trees that take 6 years or more to flower are generally moderate cropping diploids; while, lastly, after 10 years the triploid varieties begin to flower. Therefore it is perfectly possible to see the crabs flower and then graft these, then wait for the fruit of the others to be set to find out just what you’ve got. Bud grafting the triploid trees make much sense to discover early what they have to offer, for if it’s a good fruit then it will produce well on these large trees that can live for centuries!
  3. It is also possible to get fruit and nut trees to bear earlier. By taking a 1 to 2 year old branch of an apple tree and tying it horizontally it is possible to induce the buds to come into flower and thus into fruit earlier.
  4. And, finally, if we do not want the fruit that the tree bears, we can graft onto it a scion of a cultivar of our own choice. Done right, taking into account the least incompatability between scion and rootstock, the fruit or nut tree can still produce well because it is growing on a root system that has not been transplanted and with judicious, minimal pruning, the tree can be brought back into its natural form and so have the best chance of remaining vigorous and healthy.

 

An NF orchard, although later bearing, taking perhaps 6-12 years to even bear any fruit depending on species, requires no intervention beyond the initial clearing of small spaces for seeding. Seen from a broader perspective, one that tries to go beyond the simple means-end calculation of agriculture, the overall productivity of the orchard will be far greater using the NF method of no-method than will any and all conventional techniques.

Such a statement runs completely contrary to our common sense understanding; how could seeded fruit trees that only begin to fruit after aminimum of 6 years ever hope to compete against an orchard that will begin to bear after only 2 or 3 years when planted? Especially if the seeded fruit tree bears only after 12 years, as is the case with some types of large apple trees grown from triploid seeds? The answer can only be comprehended, can only begin to make sense, when we distance ourselves from the concentration only upon the fruit itself and begin to recognise and respect that the fruit is not the focus of an orchard, but simply a single part that is supported by all other parts that must be kept in a natural balance for the full powers of nature to be revealed. The early-bearing and productive culture of dwarf apples on espaliers, while apparently impressive, soon begins to pall as the expense of time and materials to keep this productivity going becomes a burden and because such fruit tree stock has a life span of no more than 35 years. So, as the NF orchard finally begins to move into full production, the conventional orchard must be restarted from scratch. The lifespan of a natural orchard can be 200 years or more, with no cost of establishment, no cost of maintenance and a productive life 4 or 5 times as long as conventional orchards.

While the fruit and nut varieties remain susceptible to disease, they are better able to fight off such diseases. The fruit they develop will be typical of the variety, giving the best possible flavour, best storage life, best overall fruit quality, best fruit set, which is apparent from the greater quantity of seeds, giving the fruit a better shape.

Natural orchards are healthier for us and for the Earth.

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About Jamie Nicol

Living in the forested hills of Catalonia, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Zen teacher, recovering philosopher, small-scale natural farmer. Writing just what comes.
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